Because I said so: The vaccination debate and a waning trust in science

trust

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

A few weeks ago, I opened my Facebook page to find a war in progress. Shared posts from CNN, Time Magazine, the New York Times, and a wide variety of blogs about vaccination and the “anti-vaxxer” movement littered my timeline.  Each post by members of my highly educated, scientist-heavy friend list was accompanied by the poster’s vehement condemnation of the anti-vaccination movement in Facebook status form.  Although spirited, this war of words appeared to be one-sided, in that I generally only saw one type of argument: Vaccinate your child because SCIENCE says so.  But is “Science says so” a valid argument in this day and age?

This vaccination debate has been going on for over a decade now, but has most recently been brought back into the public eye due to an outbreak of measles traced back to a particularly sensational place: Disneyland, USA .  That a disease considered eradicated in the United States since 2000 could attempt a comeback in what is affectionately known as “the happiest place on earth” horrifies many, and for good reason. Since January 1 of this year, over 150 cases of measles have been reported in 17 different states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These numbers are reported from 3 separate outbreaks in California, Illinois and Nevada, with California having the largest reported outbreak of the three.  The CDC also reports that the majority of people (read: children) who fell ill were unvaccinated.

The anti-vaccination movement (also known as the  “anti-vaxxer” movement) has also been in the news of late, because of this most recent outbreak and the idea that unvaccinated children are its cause. Many attribute the beginning of the anti-vaccination movement to a 1998 study done in the UK by Andrew Wakefield, which drew a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and increased numbers of autism spectrum disorders in vaccinated children (Read more here).  The story was immediately picked up by the media, and inspired panic among parents worldwide.  Vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland dropped significantly, while rates of measles and mumps skyrocketed, which of course, resulted in deaths and severe injuries.

Numerous studies have since discounted Wakefield’s link between MMR vaccine and autism, and the article was retracted due to fraud and “improper research practices” (see here). Wakefield was eventually found guilty of professional misconduct by the General Medical Council and banned from practicing as a doctor in the UK, as a result of this fraudulent work (here), although he still does speaking engagements in support of his work. His story is used in ethical research classes across the nation to illustrate the destructive power of bad science and the dangers of media misinterpretation of science. However, the damage to the public confidence in vaccines appears to be done. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Donald Trump and Alicia Silverstone continue to be vocal in their support of the anti-vaccination movement, some even citing the now-debunked Wakefield study and “personal experience”. Meanwhile, measles is out here becoming a “thing”.  Again.

As I think about all of this, what comes to mind is something that I tell my students:  Science is based on trust.  I explain to them that the lifeblood of science is trust, and that without trust, research and even Science as we know it would collapse into a pile of spreadsheets and pipet tips.

Trust from one scientist to another: I trust that you will complete this portion of our experiment correctly and efficiently, and that you will not fabricate or change data. Trust between scientific colleagues/community members: I trust that when you publish your work and interpret the findings, that you are making these assertions based on your trustworthy (and expert) opinions. Trust between the government and scientist: I trust that when I give you this multi-million dollar grant, that you will produce high-quality, tangible and useful work in return. And finally, trust between the general public and science/scientists:  I trust that you as a scientist are very intelligent/an expert, and that what you tell me about the world is important and correct.  (As a note, polls show that although the perceived contribution of scientists to society as a whole is much lower than say members of the military and teachers, they are rated by the public as one of the most highly regarded professions; lawyers and politicians are the least esteemed. (See here)  However, other polls have found that while Americans view scientists as highly competent individuals, they are also not trusted, possibly because they are not seen as warm or friendly. (here)  Interestingly enough, the PRC study also found that public esteem of scientists has actually gone down between 2009 and 2013, although it’s unclear whether that is statistically significant. Clearly science has a complicated relationship with society.)

Trust is the reason I get so worked up about the anti-vaccination movement or any movement that is based on anti-science or anti-medicine rhetoric. I should state here that I believe in vaccination of children, and I believe that great science is one of the hallmarks of a thriving society.  But I also know that not every published paper is good science. I know that not every scientist has the best interest of the general public (or even science) at heart. And not only that, I know that biomedical jargon and government mandates are no match for perfectly tanned, rich celebrities and good old-fashioned fear-mongering.

Examine the trajectory of the public opinion on climate change, for example. It wasn’t so long ago that many people simply thought global warming was an incendiary attempt by Al Gore to sell more books.  Although the current public sentiment appears to agree with the concrete scientific evidence for climate change, we still have Americans lawmakers, who not only distrust it, but actively fight against the idea that humans are negatively impacting our planet. So how is the public to know whom to trust?  Or should they trust anyone at all?

Scientists understand the basic tenet of success in research is this: trust no one, especially when he comes bearing gifts of interpretation perfectly aligned with his own agenda and no data to back it up. We poke and prod at arguments and data, mull over what we are told, and decide whether it makes sense to believe it, as we were trained to do.  In this way, we can feel confident in our ability to maintain trust between colleagues, funding organizations, and institutions, and to root out those among us who are not worthy of our confidence. The vast majority of the population does not have this training, thus many simply rely on what the media, their personal experiences, or their favorite celebrity to tell them what to do. In addition, there have been many past and present instances of scientists exhibiting untrustworthy behavior, without the globally known repercussions seen in the Wakefield case. Can we truly blame the public for the waning trust in science and scientists? Should we really be surprised when measles outbreaks begin at amusement parks or politicians pass a bill that ignores climate change? Should we be asking the general public to become more science saavy?  Or should we be asking how science can become more trustworthy?

 

I’m a scientist, so I’m sensitive about my data: The creativity within STEM

neuron_by_mental_traffic

“The Neuron”.  Artwork by Mental Traffic

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Sometimes I think about the moment I decided studying science was for me. I was a freshman in college. It wasn’t because I particularly liked math or analyzing data, or being cooped up in a science lab all day/night (because that’s what scientists were to me, then). At the time I was a Psychology major, because I had done well in high school classes and found it mildly interesting. I was in the honors program, and most of my friends just so happened to be high-achieving Biology majors. They were already taking major classes, including BIO 101. One day, in between doing my homework, I was flipping through my friend’s textbook. I became amazed at what I was reading. The images I saw of life and all of its creatures, the complex problems, and elegant solutions inspired in me such a sense of wonder. I wanted more. I wanted to create. So I began down a path which has led me, ironically, in a full circle (more on that in another post).

As I continued my pursuit of scientific exploration in graduate school, I became aware of certain patterns (and I’ve always loved patterns) in the people around me. I found that many of my brilliant researcher friends also had creative side. I know people who have published in Nature and PNAS, who take photos that would make you weep. I’ve been to physics conferences where one of the featured events was a musical jam session by my fellow scientists. I know a brilliant computer programmer that plays a mean trumpet. I’ve attended art shows with works showcasing brilliantly colorful confocal imaging of cells and cellular organization, close up images of spider eyes and bird wings, and hand drawn illustrations of a neuron.

I also love to create beautiful things. From coasters/home scents, to all natural beauty products, to cooking and baking for loved ones, to imaging hair cells on the confocal. If I am creating, I’m happy. I’ve always been inspired by images, and photography is also a secret love of mine, one that I hope to learn more about in the near future. I find many things in the world inspiring, including my science and the images it produces. I suspect many of my friends feel the same way. I have friends who are talented dancers, sculptors and interior designers, who put on a lab coat and gloves at work everyday. My friends paint, sing, write poetry and blogs, and can tell you exactly what elements and compounds are contained within a sample just by looking at spikes on a computer screen.  They can record individual neurons as they communicate with other cells, and grow plants that glow in the dark. Artists.

I say all of this, because I wonder if this pattern of great science and great creativity is connected. Nathan Alexander talked about the policy push towards adding an A for Art into the STEM acronym (to create STEAM) to appeal to a more diverse group of students. Separation of science and art is taught to us early. When I was in elementary school, the same teacher who taught us History, English, and Math, also taught Science in the same room. Meanwhile, an entirely different teacher taught Art in a different classroom, in a different part of the building. There were no connections to STEM subjects, or suggestions that a career in art is something that those who like science should pursue.

Society views artists as free, wild, and complicated, while scientists are analytical, data-driven, and socially awkward. Artists create art and poetry and scientists use lasers and build killer robots. At first glance, they could not be farther apart on the spectrum of humanity. But, then why are so many creatives drawn towards STEM careers? Is it just that scientific research is so stressful, with all of it’s pitfalls, politics, and potential failures, that a creative outlet is a distraction required to survive?

Or, is science in its essential form creativity? Does it not require skill and a sometimes slavish dedication to craft? Can creative inspiration by other artists or muses be likened to the genesis of new experimental ideas and paradigms after talking with fellow scientists about their research? Does attention to detail and seemingly unrelated factors play an important role in both the evolution of art and science? Are a sculptor and an engineer simply creating different pieces of art? Can there be true artistic beauty in a high-resolution image of the cellular organization of auditory sensory cells?

I got into science because I saw it as a creative endeavor, a chance to carve out my path and to use my skills to create new understanding of the world around me. In my mind, art, is a way of communicating about life, sharing with the world all of its wonders and it’s dark, scary places. To me, the two subjects aren’t so very different. So maybe it’s time for a more nuanced view of both professions. Maybe art and science can share the same room after all.

What do you think? Are there better ways to incorporate science into art classes and vice versa?  Should artistic ability be encouraged/developed in the budding scientist?

From HeLa to Henrietta: Recognizing the humanity in genetic material

Henrietta Lacks Cells

Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander, PhD

On August 27, 2014, the National Institute of Health (NIH) released an update to the current guidelines for scientists who receive NIH funding to study genomics. In the new policy, the NIH mandates that all funded data in genomics be posted online with the intent that the information be accessible to other researchers. Given the recent and heated debate about the ethics of sharing human biological and genetic material within the scientific community, it would appear that the NIH has chosen to bunk with the camp promoting rapid scientific discovery as being paramount over consent. However, you will also find that tucked very neatly within this update, are more specific guidelines for gaining informed consent of the participants who are contributing this genomic data.

As of January 25, 2015, all funding applications to the NIH proposing large-scale human and non-human projects must meet these requirements. Specifically, researchers are now required to tell study participants that their de-identified data (and thus genomic information) may be shared with the scientific community for future research, as well as with the general public. This requirement also applies to research using de-identified cell lines or clinical specimens.

This policy is groundbreaking because previously, researchers were simply required to discuss with potential participants the goals of the current work, and study subjects gave their consent to participate based on this discussion. Because of the vagueness of these requirements, there have also been many instances of human biological data being initially collected (with or without consent) for one study or clinical use, but being shared and used for a multitude of other unapproved applications.  This lack of transparency has lead to widespread mistrust of both the medical and scientific professions, particularly by people of color.

One of the most famous examples of this is the case of Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951). Henrietta was an African-American woman whose cancer cells (denoted by HeLa cells) were used to generate a cell line that has served as the basis for a multitude of groundbreaking work in cancer research. However, Henrietta did not consent to, nor was she even informed of the possibility of the use of her biological material for scientific work before her death at age 31. Likewise, consent was not obtained from any of her family members before or after her death. In fact, for decades, the Lacks family were not even aware that Henrietta’s cells were used for research, despite its ubiquitous use in a variety of places, from molecular biology labs to medical school classrooms. The family of Henrietta Lacks made their vehement objections known to the public and to NIH in 2013, after two researchers sequenced her genome and published her genetic data in a 2012 paper, without the family’s consent. The Poston Collective has covered this story previously; for more information about Henrietta Lacks and the resolution of their case read here and here.

There have been other examples of the use of human biological material being solicited for specific research or clinical purposes, and actually being used for other undisclosed research. For example, in 2012, parents in both Minnesota and Texas sued the states because dried blood samples left over from newborn screening tests were used to create a DNA database, without parental consent. In the Texas case, the settlement required the destruction of 5 million dried blood samples, and in both Texas and Minnesota, resulted in more specific state-level laws requiring informed consent for blood samples retained for research. Read more about these cases here.

In 2010, Arizona State University settled a case brought by the Havasupai tribe of Arizona, paying out $700,000 to the tribe. The tribe alleged that blood samples originally collected for a study on diabetes were actually used in research on mental illness within the tribe and on population genetics. The Havasupai participants were not informed of this potential use of their genetic material and did not consent to their genetic information being published.

Naturally, these examples and others have inspired spirited debate within the scientific community regarding whether informed consent is really necessary with biological material, de-identified or not. Some argue that requiring informed consent is at best difficult to implement, and at worst unfeasible depending on the proposed work. They insist that it will slow down the pace of science, and may bar important research from being done.

I believe that in this day and age, with so many instances of past misconduct and exploitation of people of color, it is essential that the scientific community be seen as upholding certain values. These values include respect of human rights over scientific discovery. In my opinion, it may take a little extra work and time to gain consent from study participants, but it will go a long way to maintaining relationships and inspiring trust within the community. People choose to participate in scientific studies because of the reputation of scientists as honest, trustworthy and unbiased people. As such, it would be to the detriment of the scientific community to be thought of as being careless with biological material or genetic information, or even misleading subjects for their own benefit or agenda. This last point is probably why the NIH has been so proactive in resolving this dispute with the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.

The updated consent policy establishes the NIH as firmly on the side of informed consent and human right to choose what happens to their genetic and biological material, but still values sharing research findings with the rest of the scientific community. It allows the NIH to publicly recognize the humanity in human genetic and biological material.  And in her own way, with the tireless advocacy of her descendants, the life of Henrietta Lacks played a role in not only advancing scientific research, but how science sees the subjects that it depends on: as human.

What do you think?  Is informed consent really necessary for genetic material? What effects do you think the new NIH funding policy will have on science as a whole?  Is this change enough?

Fighting the Good Fight: Is There a Place for Activism in Academia?

Fannie Lou Hamer hands up

Photo of Mississippi voting activist Fannie Lou Hamer, June 1963.

Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

“But you see now baby, whether you have a ph.d., d.d. or no d, we’re in this bag together. And whether you are from Morehouse or Nohouse, we’re still in this bag together.” — Fannie Lou Hamer

With the recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent civilian protests and militarization of the Ferguson Police department, I’ve been feeling a type of way. I’m feeling tired and sad. I’m thankful that I get to hug my own Michael Brown every day, but afraid that at any moment that privilege could be taken away. But most of all, I’m frustrated. Frustrated that unarmed black people keep getting killed by police and vigilantes, and then slandered in the media. Frustrated that 50+ years have passed since the civil rights movement, and I will still have to teach my future child(ren) about how things are different for them because they are black in America, that they must take extra care just to stay alive. Frustrated that even if they do everything right, no matter how tailored their clothing or how many degrees they earn, sometimes people will treat them as if they are less than human. I want to DO something about it. I want to get in my car and drive to Missouri to march, protest, yell and scream. Do SOMETHING. But I feel like my hands are tied. I worry about how my activism might affect my career. When it comes time for job applications and interview requests, I consider whether I’d be placed in a box as “combative”, “militant” and “not committed to her science/work” right before being placed in the “not interested” pile. I know these things shouldn’t matter to me, and that it is important that my voice be heard, but I still worry. And I ask myself: “Is there is a place for activism in academia?”

From my experience, the greatest emphasis in academia is placed on doing exemplary and innovative science. You are expected to spend some of your time doing other things, whether it be teaching or mentoring students or community outreach (which should always be science related). Otherwise, you should be working in the lab, writing a grant proposal, giving talks at conferences or submitting a journal article for review in top journals. Anything else is considered a distraction, and should be excised from the budding scientist’s list of priorities.

With federal funding for STEM research in a precarious position created by sequestration and the subsequent slashing of funding agency budgets, followed by the abrupt removal of job security during the government shutdown, scientist-activism has found an opportunity to blossom. There are advocacy programs where researchers can spend a day in Washington, lobbying lawmakers to place a greater value on the potential of scientific America, to increase scientific funding and to find ways to better distribute funding for research. In fact, you can read about one experience here. Others arrange carpools to the nation’s capitol to picket and protest the current state of scientific funding. Still other academics organize campaigns to write letters to governors, congress, and anyone who will listen about the dire financial predicament that science finds itself in today. These people argue passionately for their cause and sometimes even inspire change. But again, this activism is science-related and thus convincing to the powers that be that it’s ok to devote a bit of time to this activity. Thus, this type of activism meets general approval.

Things get trickier when it comes to activism for things affecting scientists outside of the lab. Things like immigration reform. Women’s reproductive health. Race-related killings by the police. I watch (tenured) professors like Tricia Rose in the Africana Studies department of Brown University vigorously advocate for social justice on television and in their classrooms, with a sense of envy. I also wonder how many bright students gravitate toward the social sciences because of perceived ability to be vocal about issues of social justice in those fields, and a sense of intolerance for that type of expression in ours.

To a lowly postdoc, it appears that their tenured status and already successful careers make it easier for professors in the social sciences to speak up without fear of retribution; in fact many of them have made a lasting mark on their fields simply because of their passionate pleas for social equality and justice. But why shouldn’t that also extend to early career investigators, and for that matter, to professors in the hard sciences? Why should they have to pretend that issues that directly affect them and their daily lives, are of lesser consequence than getting that fantastic paper published in the “right journal”?

As part of the intelligentsia, it is tempting to believe we should be above the fray, caring only about what the scientific method and our own intellect can tell us about the world. But we shouldn’t forget that many of the social issues being debated and protested today affect all of us (and our science). Graduate students who worried about their family being detained and deported may have a hard time focusing on their work. Professors who have to worry about being arrested or even killed for being the wrong skin color in a certain part of town may have the same problem. So why shouldn’t they be allowed space and time to advocate for social change?

I believe that the passion of young professionals for changing the world around them and for making a difference should be seen as an asset. Because, honestly, isn’t that what science is all about? We all want to find the solutions to the problems of the world. Scientific discovery is a tried and true way to achieve that goal. And activism, in its many forms, is a valid pathway to lasting change within our society as well. As Fannie Lou Hamer says in the opening quote: “We’re in this bag together.” Maybe it’s time we started acting like it.

Could Tuition-Free Colleges and Universities Help Diversify STEM?

Money pig graduate

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

In recent months, several legislative proposals have been presented that might signal the end of times for college tuition. These proposals have been put forth by legislators in Michigan, New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi, and would allow students to get a college education at the state or community college of their choice for “free”.

Michigan House Bill No. 5315 (affectionately called The “Pay It Forward bill”) would provide up to 200 in-state students interest-free loans for college tuition at either a 2- or 4-year institution. Once a student has graduated from their institution and attained a position that puts them above the federal poverty line, they are required to pay a fixed percentage of their adjusted gross income into a fund, which will provide for financial aid of future college students. The amount the student would pay depends on what type of school they attended; 2% for community college students, and 4% for public university students. Students would be required to pay this percentage for five years for every year they attended school under the program. This means, a student who attended a Michigan school for five years, would pay 4% of their income into the fund for 25 years.

In New York, the idea is to provide New York residents free tuition to attend a university, college or community college within the SUNY (State University of New York) system. In return, students are required to complete 250 hours of community service a year while enrolled, and commit to stay in New York for five years after graduation, presumably to keep well-educated talent within the state. While costing the state close to $1 billion dollars to implement, the co-sponsors of the NY bill say it will result in $3 billion dollars of community service hours, as well as increased sales and property tax revenue created by students starting their post-graduate lives in the state.

While these proposed programs in Michigan and New York, as well as the programs in Tennessee, Oregon and Mississippi, might encourage students from all walks of life to consider college as an affordable option, the question arises of how this would really change the college population. I argue that these programs would also have the effect of increasing diversity in STEM fields.

One obvious effect of these programs is that free tuition would allow more low-income students to access schools with high quality STEM programs and cutting edge research. These students would get to interact with and be mentored by world-class researchers and faculty, generating many future opportunities to which they may not have previously had access. It would also make the path easier for students who need a little help to strengthen their knowledge of hard sciences, but can’t afford to pay for community college alone. According to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success, African-American, Latino, and Native American community college students are more likely to attend schools which do not participate in federal student loan programs. In some states, particularly in the south, more than a fifth of community-college students are denied access to federal loans. This means that in order to gain education, students must pay tuition for these schools out of pocket. Community college tuition has been steadily increasing, as more students see them as a viable alternative to traditional colleges. By removing this barrier to education, students can focus maintaining the program’s GPA requirements and getting the most out of their college experience.

Similarly, removal of the intimidation factor of soaring loan interest rates and crippling debt may encourage other students to follow their passion. The average student might choose a degree in a field that they are not particularly enthused about because they know that their future career will pay enough to keep them living comfortably while they repay student loans. Conversely, scientists generally choose their field for the love of science and knowledge and not the money. Most postdocs can describe in detail the profound sense of dread they experienced upon receipt of their first college loan repayment notice from Sallie Mae. By eliminating the threat of unmanageable future debt, underrepresented students may feel more comfortable pursuing degrees in STEM and even academia.

Another benefit to the programs would be the retention of homegrown talent. While I do advocate seeing the world a bit before settling down, many urban areas would benefit from educated locals staying around. These students could help to make a difference in their own communities, by demonstrating that college is possible and by using their education to make changes. Providing an incentive to attend a great college and work in one’s home state could be particularly tempting to talented students who already have familial obligations. The opportunity to attend these schools close to home for “free” may make the offer one that is too sweet to resist.

I would also posit that by increasing underrepresented minority access to high-quality programs, more role models in STEM would begin to appear. Aspiring scientists of color would see many people who look like them in top positions, demonstrating their passion for their work, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would become much less of an anomaly. This might inspire younger students of color to pursue their dreams of being an astrophysicist, starting a booming technology startup business, or becoming a star of their own engineering television show. And thus, the cycle would continue, until “underrepresented” is no longer an accurate description of people of color within STEM careers.

For now, this idea of a “free” college education is still within the legislative proposal stage. There are still kinks to work out including: whether/how students should be evaluated for acceptance into the program (GPA, essays, application?) Should schools also be subjected to a rigorous selection process in order to be allowed to participate? Another issue is the seeming dependence (at least in Michigan) upon graduate repayment of loans to sustain the program over the years. How will the governing body ensure that graduates will be able to repay their interest free loans (ie secure employment that puts them “above the poverty line”), and that their repayment will be sufficient to aid future students? Despite these questions, this concept of a free education is still very interesting, and one that just might change the face of STEM and academia.

 

As an aside, there are still free (Really. It’s FREE free) educational options for the curious. One such option is to complete a MOOC. MOOCs (massively open online courses) are free online course taught by video lecture to thousands of people at a time. Topics range from “Developing your Musicianship” (Berklee College of Music) to “Programming Cloud Services for Android Handheld Systems” (Vanderbilt University). The Poston Collective has written about these useful mini-courses before, and you can read more about them here. While these free courses generally don’t result in a traditional degree, they are often taught by industry leaders and can be a great way to keep up with a dynamic career field. Many esteemed institutions of higher learning including Stanford, Harvard and MIT have released free MOOCs.

A PhD in Zen: Six ways to keep your sanity while in a PhD program and beyond

Yoga

Written by Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Having recently graduated with my PhD in Psychology (2nd best day of my life!), I now look back on my time in the trenches with a sense of fondness only given to those for whom time has granted the favor of forgetting pain. I think back to when I started graduate school: young, driven, fresh-faced and certain that at any moment, I would be outed at the imposter I was. I think back to when I started to get my intellectual footing, especially the moment when I realized, “Hey… I know more than I thought. Maybe I do belong here.” And I revel in the moment before my PhD defense (best afternoon of my life!) when I looked out at the audience, taking in the sea of purple-clad supporters, and I knew that I had already won the battle of a lifetime.

I see the evolution of the woman and academic I am today, and although I’m grateful for the journey, hindsight shows me plenty of ways I could have made the path much less rocky for myself. In today’s post, I’d like to share six ways to make the PhD process a little bit easier on your sanity. Some of these revelations I stumbled upon early on in my matriculation, while others I am still working on. And that’s OK. I will be the first to admit I am a work in progress, but I have strong hopes that my progress will help someone else. So, here is my post I affectionately call “Dr. Alexander did that, so hopefully you wont have to go through that.”

1. Don’t be afraid to say “NO.”

This little gem took me until my third year to get comfortable with, and I wish I had realized its virtues much sooner. Many academics are born overachievers. We’re used to being at the top of the class, juggling all sorts of extracurricular and social activities, and handling it all with an impeccable sense of style. All of us are taken by surprise by the whirlwind of research, classes and teaching that make up the graduate school experience. We are horrified  these professional obligations will suck up virtually all of our time like a black hole. On top of all of this, there are still many outside tasks we are expected to do: to develop professionally, to maintain relationships/friendships, and to gain experiences that will help us gain employment after school.

Despite having precious little free time, many of us may feel that telling someone “I can’t do it” or “No.”, is a sign of weakness, or that you will be “letting them down”. Each of these requests for our time and energy seem equally imperative; as if everything will fall apart if we don’t say yes. We tell ourselves that we can do it all, much like we’ve done it all before. However, what we often fail to realize is that despite being able to “do it all”, we simply cannot “do it all well”. By piling obligations on to an already overflowing plate, we are setting ourselves up in the worst case to fail. Even in the best case, we resign ourselves to a stressful, less than stellar performance on all of our tasks. This results in more stress and a greater decline in performance until it all falls apart.

It all seems like a vicious cycle that is difficult to break, but it’s actually pretty simple: Focus on the important things, the things you are in school to accomplish (PUBLISH good work, create a strong professional NETWORK, GRADUATE with a PhD), and be willing to let the less important things go. I promise that life will go on, and that you will be grateful for more space to breathe. If you have done your prioritizing right (and you must trust that you have), you will find yourself in a happier existence and with much higher quality output. And isn’t that what grad school is all about?

 

2. Do make time for YOU.

I can’t emphasize how important this is. In order to be the best scientist, engineer, anthropologist, writer, educator you can be, you must have a sense of who YOU are now. What kinds of things YOU like to do. It is easy to get lost in the things we have to do (work, classes, teach) and forget about the things we LIKE to do. Graduate school is an exercise in endurance, and when things don’t go your way during a bad day, month (year. Sigh.), it can be easy to lose motivation to keep going. By creating space in your day to regroup from rough patches, it gets easier to get up each day and try it again. I advocate doing at least small thing for yourself each day, whether it is a coffee break with a good friend, yoga practice, running, watching the game, playing with your kids, etc. This time should be non-negotiable; it happens regardless of what is going on in your life. I’ve found that work setbacks are much easier to handle when I know I have this un-changing “me time” to look forward to. I’ve done different things at different times during my PhD career, but most recently, my “me time” was watching my favorite tv show, Scandal, with friends. I allowed myself to watch this show religiously, and I wouldn’t have traded the weekly opportunity to step outside of my dissertation and academic speak, for the world. Prioritizing “YOU time” will also give you the chance to step out of your circumstances, and remind you that there is life outside of the job.

Another important way to prioritize yourself is to care for your body. It’s something we hear often, but when you are still working in lab at 11:00 at night, and your stomach is grumbling, it’s hard not to reach for that bag of chips or slice of pizza. Believe me, I struggle with this as well. But when you think of your body as the machine that allows you to do the stellar work you envision, it’s clear that preventative maintenance is key. Eating well and exercising to take care of and strengthen your body is just as important as strengthening your brain. Find out what fruits and vegetables will help your body and brain move mountains (hint: blueberries!) and eat them. Go for a walk while you wait for an incubation or if you have writers block. By making the care of your body a priority, you signal to the world that you value the thing that makes you who you are, and that you are willing to keep it in tip-top shape, by any means necessary. The added energy and general feeling of well-being doesn’t hurt either.

 

3. Don’t be afraid to take a day (or two) off

Sometimes in your quest for a PhD, things just will not go your way. You will have frustrating days, weeks or months that are just bad from start to finish. Your experiment, which has worked perfectly 15 times previously, suddenly decides that it doesn’t want to work any more. You realize that after months of data analysis, you made a mistake, and have to do the whole analysis over again. Or maybe you just feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that your advisor has given you to do, and are paralyzed because of it. Setbacks like these and others can make it seem like giving up is the right and only thing to do. I mean, if you were smart/good/skilled enough, you wouldn’t have these issues, right? Wrong. You may just need some time to reflect and relax. We often feel like there is no time for us to rest, that there are just too many things to do and not enough time to do it. But, I think we forget being in the hustle and bustle of graduate school, we generally have the opportunity to determine our own hours. As a result, if it means producing better work in the long run, we can (and should) take off when we need it. Whenever I felt like things were getting to be too much, or I just needed a break from the struggle, I went home. I took what I liked to call “Mental Health days” where I took the day off for personal reasons, and just spent it resting and doing things I wanted to do. I caught up on tv shows. I painted my toenails. I took a walk in the park. I had “Me time”. Sometimes it was simply an afternoon, and sometimes I took a whole day off. This opportunity to rest and reflect on what was going wrong in my life and how to fix it was often enough to get me motivated and willing to give it another try. Often times,  when I returned to work, things worked themselves out or I came up with new ways to work around stumbling blocks. Either way, my mental health days kept me moving along the PhD path.

 

4. Do have outside interests

There is nothing worse than dreading an event you feel obligated to attend, because you know all conversation will revolve around two questions “SO, what do you study/do?” and “How is your research going?” You know that the “partiers” will talk about their scientific problems and intellectual achievements all night, while you stare listlessly off into space, counting the minutes until you can reasonably excuse yourself and dash off into the night. It is almost like academics look at social events as a way to gauge our own progress; specifically who is doing better/worse than you and to show off our intellectual prowess. Stop. Drop. And please, please, PLEASE shut down the shop.

It is ok (and even desirable) to discuss things other than what is going on at your lab bench. In fact, it may surprise you that talking about other things you’ve done (like the hike you did last weekend, or the painting you are working on, or even how upset you were at who died on the last episode of Game of Thrones) are much more interesting to others than what’s going on in your petri dish. Even more surprising, talking about the happy things you did during “Me time” can actually help you to relax and let the solutions to your work problems reveal themselves.

In my humble opinion, academics don’t invest enough time in things outside of academia. Try a hobby or learn a skill unrelated to your work. Always wanted to be a roller-girl? Join a derby league. Miss your days of kickball domination on the elementary school playground? There are lots of adult kickball teams. Want to do more personal reading? Start/join a no-science allowed book club with your friends. All of these outside activities and more will give you the opportunity to develop yourself as a person and as a well-rounded academic. Plus, it will make you a much more charismatic party guest. Who can say no to that?

 

5. Do develop a stable support system

Last week, Dr. Poston wrote an excellent post on how to build a support community within your PhD program. Check out the post here. It is so important to not only develop a stable support system, but to make sure you choose all types of people to be a part of it.  I feel my experience was made richer by having friends from all walks of life and at different stages PhD process. Some of my most cherished graduate school friends were in other departments very different from my own. But we all shared a common experience on some level. The ability to talk about (or not talk about) any issues I was facing as an academic, as a woman of color at a PWI or as a scientist, and know that I was understood and accepted at the most basic level was precious to me.

Their contributions weren’t just personal. My support system was also essential for my professional development. I appreciated the commonalities, but I relished the differences between us, the ability to step out of my little corner of the scientific world, and learn something new from my peers about the world of Africana studies, or chemistry, or political science.  Sometimes, what I learned would inspire me to make changes to my work, for the better. I also knew that if I needed someone to listen to a practice talk or read over a grant proposal, I always had someone who was ready and willing. They helped me decipher cryptic emails from professors, and develop the perfect way to broach uncomfortable topics with colleagues. Their critiques and praises helped me take my work from something I had just “done”, to something I could be proud of.

I would also emphasize the need to maintain connections with people outside of the university/professional settings. If you have a significant other, don’t be afraid to share with them the kind of support that you need. I relied on my boyfriend, Michael, to celebrate the occasional victories and to help me through the inevitable tough times. I also relied on my family and friends who weren’t in school, who reminded me that there was a good life waiting for me on the other side of the PhD. All of these people were indispensable, and none of them would allow me to give up, even when I wanted to. I truly believe I wouldn’t have this degree if I hadn’t chosen these specific people to be part of my support system. And I believe you will find that careful selection of the members of your support system will go a long way in helping you succeed in as a PhD student and throughout your career.

 

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I mentioned in my last post Hashtags and (Mental Health): A shared experience, the difficulty many POC have with asking for help when we need it, and the complex reasons for this. Despite this struggle, it is vital that we in particular learn this essential skill. No matter what your parent, your best friend or even your pastor says to the contrary, you and only you know your limits. There is only so much that you can do to maintain your mental, physical, and emotional health, and there are plenty of licensed people, who are ready and willing to help you shoulder the load. There is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

In this article, we’ve talked about various ways of making your time in a PhD program progress smoothly, and I have emphasized the importance of knowing and prioritizing yourself. We can only be at our best professionally, when we know ourselves and what we need. This includes knowing what you need from your support system, your advisor, or your therapist. I’ve asked for help with a tricky protocol and had a coworker suggest a tweak that made all the difference. I’ve met with a therapist when I needed help working out personal issues. I’ve asked my friends to read over a proposal or an abstract before submitting it. Each of these experiences has reinforced the importance of understanding where my limits lie, and the understanding that asking for assistance shows strength and not weakness.

Be encouraged that no matter the problem, there is a solution, and if not, there is always a way around the obstacle. Trust that people are happy and willing to help you, and that you are not in this struggle alone. I still struggle with becoming comfortable with asking for help, but knowing that there are others out there who are ready and willing to help me, makes the asking easier. I would encourage you to try it, and to see whether your personal and professional life doesn’t change for the better.

That’s all I’ve got for now. What do you think? What are some other strategies that you’ve found to stay sane during your PhD and beyond?